The sun lit up golden highlights in the light brown hair piled up in a bun at the top of the young woman’s head. She was fiercely focused on her task as she wore dark gardening gloves that went up to her narrow wrists. She was hand harvesting some of the most iconic wine grapes and with one wrong move, she could end up damaging the Tempranillo vine, one of the most valuable Tempranillo vines on the planet; it would take several decades for a newly planted vine to reach the level of quality as the one she was harvesting – she would be middle-aged by that time. One would think she would be in a panic before each snip, her hands shaking, yet that was not the case as she was like a skilled surgeon with steady hands and a confident demeanor as she moved from one vine to the other with swift accuracy.
The Vega Sicilia vineyards in Spain’s Ribera del Duero wine region are legendary. The first vineyard was planted in 1890 with that original vineyard, with its over 130-year-old vines, still part of the Vega Sicilia estate today. Some of the first French varieties, such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot that were grafted onto American rootstocks were planted in this vineyard as the grafted vines were sent to the founder of Vega Sicilia to be part of that original planting as Bordeaux varieties made up a small amount of the blend.
The main red grape is Tempranillo – a native Spanish variety that has evolved to become a thicker-skinned variety than its counterpart in the more famous neighboring wine region of Rioja. The climate in Ribera del Duero is believed to have created the evolution of the grape as the extreme weather can rapidly jump from hot to cold to sunny to frost to hailstorms.
The young woman harvesting is an enology student who made it through the strict selection process to be chosen as a harvester at this grand estate. It is a highly competitive position as for two weeks, each harvester will make 800 Euros a day plus housing and food, as well as having the experience of working in some of the top vineyards in the world. Vega Sicilia is undoubtedly an outlier when it comes to paying so much for harvesters as many times there is much discussion about some wine producers taking advantage of desperate people by paying them an unfair wage. But Vega Sicilia is legendary among those in the know to go to extremes for every step of their wine production process and if they want enology students with a keen mind and steady surgeon hands – the best of the best, then they are going to pay for it.
Reaching for Excellence
The original owner of Vega Sicilia, a Spanish winemaker trained in Bordeaux, certainly pushed the boundaries when striving to make fine wines in Ribera del Duero over a century ago. Still, the estate’s second visionary, owner and general manager Pablo Álvarez, has taken the founder’s original goal to new levels that are still extraordinary by today’s standards. First, Pablo shocked his neighbors by banning herbicides and chemicals on the estate in the mid-80s as sustainability and organic farming were far from the norm at that time. And through the years, he has lost a significant amount of money by not releasing certain vintages for his most sought-after wines as he felt they did not measure up to their high standards.
Never resting on his laurels, he is always thinking of how to strive for a greater level of excellence than what they have already achieved. Hence why there is always research into the best clones of Tempranillo within their historic vineyards that will be more disease resistant and more adaptable to climate change. Also, they use frost towers that help to combat freezing temperatures damaging the crop as it is an area that fights the cold as well as the heat; in the winery, testing wine in different types of vessels to constantly improve the preservation and expression of their outstanding terroir as well as trials with non-Saccharomyces yeasts (Saccharomyces yeasts are typical for wine ferments) to see which ones bring out more freshness as temperatures are increasing for the area; and in the cellar, a project that even outdoes anything Vega Sicilia has done itself, planting 50,000 cork trees in 1998 so they can make their own cork closures one day as well as them currently making their own oak barrels on the estate with their cooperage, where now, they source 1/3 of all the oak barrels they use to age their Spanish wines.
It is taking the idea of terroir, a sense of place, to another level with the oak barrels for aging and the cork closures all coming from the Vega Sicilia estate. The idea is to have everything 100% sourced and made from Vega Sicilia.
Keep the Fire Burning
Through the past couple of decades, Ribera del Duero has built a solid reputation for stellar wines and it is no longer overshadowed by Rioja when it comes to fine wine drinkers. Undoubtedly, Vega Sicilia is one of the wine producers in the area that has helped with its reputation yet the company is even beyond the wine region or any wine region as it is an icon of mythical proportions. It stands on its own as having no equal. Pablo Álvarez understands the tremendous responsibility of balancing preserving its magic and bringing it to the next level every year, hence what one experiences in its illustrious Unico wine.
Undoubtedly, many would look at how Vega Sicilia is run as a business and be shocked by its practices, as it doesn’t make sense when trying to make a profit. But Vega Sicilia is Pablo’s life work, an obsession to have something so precious live up to the highest ideals.
After the end of each work day, the exhausted female harvester, an enology student, would wait until everyone left the vineyards so she could stand there in silence with the vines, taking down her hair to allow it to blow in the breeze as she lifted her sun-kissed face to the sky. She knew she was part of something so much bigger than herself, part of creating a great wine that was never content with only greatness and that not only did Vega Sicilia live up to the fantasies she had at university but it exceeded them.
“That doesn’t exist,” was a typical response when she would talk to those in the wine business about a winery living up to her ideals at professional trade shows she attended. But it did exist and she was a part of it for two beautiful weeks. Although she knew she would never work at another winery that would live up to such a vision, she would always be able to keep that fire lit within her, always to strive to do better even when those around her think she is wasting her time.
It becomes lonely when one is trying to reach for the stars in her work, which also happens to be her passion and is met by co-workers who find such striving to be a little ridiculous, chastising her for wanting something that isn’t possible. “But it is possible,” she will tell them, “because I experienced it.”
***Link to original article on Forbes: https://www.forbes.com/sites/cathrinetodd/2023/04/27/winery-pays-top-dollar-to-harvest-grapes-making-one-of-the-greatest-wines-in-the-world/
2013 Vega Sicilia, Unico, Ribera del Duero, Spain: 97% Tempranillo (Tinto Fino) and 3% Cabernet Sauvignon. Unico is aged for at least ten years before it is released onto the market. 2013 was a challenging vintage as it was cooler with more rain than usual. Immediately fresh and vibrant with an intense energy and drive on the palate with silky tannins with flavors of blackcurrants, wild sage, broken rocks and a fierce minerality on the long, expressive finish. The purity of its expression is quite impressive considering it was a rainy year.
NV Vega Sicilia, Unico Reserva Especial 2023 Release, Ribera del Duero, Spain: A blend of the 2009, 2011 and 2012 Unico vintages. Much more of an ethereal quality to this release. Lifted floral notes with bright red cherries and a richer background of blackberry compote yet it prances and dances along the palate, giving a lightness of being among the richness and multi-layered complexity that includes chalky minerality, spice box and sweet tobacco – a very long, polished finish. Extremely elegant!
2018 Vega Sicilia, Valbuena 5º, Ribera del Duero, Spain: 96% Tempranillo (Tinto Fino) and 4% Merlot. The 5 in the name of the wine represents the fact that this wine is always aged five years in the cellar before being released onto the market. The wine from the Vega Sicilia estate that doesn’t reach the level of Unico icon status is used to make Valbuena 5º, which has become a star in its own right. Another cooler vintage but there is an immediate approachability to this wine that is very inviting with rose oil notes and blueberry pie flavors that has hints of cardamom pods and finely etched tannins on the palate that has lots of acidity with a soft quality so the wine has finesse as well as early drinking appeal. It will be challenging to stop oneself from drinking the whole case of wine all at once!